Depp’s version of Hunter Thompson’s ‘Rum Diary’:Dazzling, but it sits uneasily

AT THE END of his life, Hunter S. Thompson worried that he'd be remembered as a caricature of himself, not as the brilliant writer he actually was in the 1970s.

For the drug/booze antics referenced in his books, not for the books themselves.

So it's with some consternation that we consider "The Rum Diary." It plays into Thompson's worst fears by tallying his years in Puerto Rico as a bar tab, but it also resulted in the publishing of the author's unfinished "Rum Diary" novel, apparently quite good.

Thompson aficionado Johnny Depp optioned the unpublished book and hired Bruce Robinson to turn it into a movie, in the bargain becoming a market-marker for the novel.

It's loosely based on Thompson's own experiences in 1950s Puerto Rico as a journalist, and Depp, though playing a guy named Paul Kemp, leaves no doubt he's channeling Thompson, as he did for Terry Gilliam in "Fear and Loathing."

Kemp is hired (by Richard Jenkins) to write puff pieces for a dying San Juan newspaper, but ends up on the payroll of a real estate developer (Aaron Eckhart) trying to ram through another hotel complex. Kemp loathes the rapacious project, but he does fall hard for the developer's foxy girlfriend (Amber Heard, of the just-canceled "Playboy Club").

As this triangle plays out, Kemp and a pair of dissolute newspaper employees (Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Rispoli) battle to save the newspaper - from financial ruin, from itself.

It all adds up to not much, though the movie is dazzling to look at - shot on location in San Juan, and Eckhart has the nicest collection of menswear I've ever seen in a movie. Heard is a dish.

But "The Rum Diary" panders to fans of the Thompson legend with very broad drug-booze comedy that sits uneasily with the movie's pretentions to anti-colonial commentary.

Depp could have helped make sense of all this with a performance that penetrated the droll facade of his Thompsonesque character, but we never get past the groovy sunglasses.

And I think the cultural moment has long passed when a movie like "The Rum Diary" can pay lip service to the plight of the Puerto Rican common man without including a single substantial Puerto Rican character.

The Rum Diary

Directed by Bruce Robinson. With Marshall Bell, Aaron Eckhart, Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, Richard Jenkins, Amber Heard, Giovanni Ribisi, Jason Smith, Amaury Nolasco, Bill Smitrovich. Distributed by The Film District.

Running time: 2 hours, 0 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language, brief drug use and sexuality).